Tag Archives: MustSee

Babylon 5 (rewatch n)

[5 stars]

TL;DR: If you’ve not rewatched Babylon 5 recently, you should. If you’ve never seen it, make the time. Forgive its faults and revel in its incredibly intricate and intentional plotting that no one other than Dark has even come close to in the intervening years since its release. And gawk at its unexpected relevance 30 years after its original airing.

And, yes, I started this effort before the recent reboot announcement: https://deadline.com/2021/09/babylon-5-series-reboot-j-michael-straczynski-development-cw-1234845022/

There are some genre shows I come back to on a regular basis. No matter how many times I rewatch them, I find new moments or surprises…or simply enjoy certain stories so much I never get bored with them. Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Stargate SG-1, Star Trek (OS, TNG, DS9)…and Babylon 5 which is probably the least widely appreciated of that list, but which had a most outsized influence on the genre and all that followed.

I am more than willing to admit that some of the writing and directing of B5 is painful at times. But the fact that it remains rewatchable despite that and, more importantly, still relevant and impressive all these years later is a testament to what it was. B5 changed the landscape of genre TV. By creating a pre-planned 5-year arc J. Michael Straczynski (Sense8) was able to thread through clues and foreshadowing with intent rather than retconning them into plots conceived down the road. Not that the latter can’t be done well; Buffy and Angel did it all the time, as did Game of Thrones. But no one has come close to the beautiful construction of B5 through its first four seasons. And no show has purposely evolved in style, focus, and design from season to season the way B5 did. Only The Expanse comes close, and possible Farscape before it.

The simple truth is that if B5 had been birthed in the streaming world it would have been a smash. Its huge gamble was to have an ongoing tale rather than reset, episodic adventures. They kept losing audience and weren’t able to easily pick up new viewers since the earlier shows weren’t available. Joe was ahead of his time…but his influence reshaped entertainment and set a high bar.

But what is amazing to me is how relevant the story remains. Presented in the early 90s, I was glued to the TV every week watching the story reflect the world of politics and society…with a lot of grand adventure, humor, and action to boot. Decades later I was somewhat worried it would have gone threadbare. But no, the mirror still works for today, even with its faults (let’s face it, Joe really didn’t write women well, though he tried).

In fact, the first season or two are disturbingly accurate for today. Politics, in the era of 45, are even closer to the horror story B5 lays out. There are pandemics, which once reflected the AIDS crisis but today are a perfect extrapolation of COVID. Stories of media suppression and control in the age of Fox news and Murdoch. Endless wars and generational hate have moved from the Soviet Union to the Middle and Far East, but still echo in our reality. Honestly, you’d think it was written recently.

Up through most of season 3 and into the start of 4, Babylon is one of the most beautifully, tightly constructed shows ever put to screen. It would have been even better if they weren’t forced into 21 episode seasons; some of the pointless stand-alones could have been dropped. But if you’ve seen it more than once, you start noticing phrases and moments that wouldn’t originally pay off for, literally, years in air-time. The level of conviction and trust involved in that is breathtaking. Because of the history of the show (it wasn’t going to be renewed for broadcast and then had a last minute save for its final season on cable) the fourth season is a bit rushed at the end. And then the fifth season had its own struggles with budget and cast changes…and the fact that Joe did his fans a favor and gave us finale ahead of what he’d planned in case the fifth season never came.

The result is that the fourth season becomes more about falling dominos as the intricate clockwork of the plots spins down. Which isn’t to say that the fourth and fifth season don’t have their moments, but it is more about action and result and less interesting as a modern mirror. But it is still a great ride to the multiple conclusions of threads, revelations about moments we’d been promised and had misinterpreted for years, and harsh and honest commentary on world politics, religion, war, but most of all: humanity.

The real question now, after a recent announcement, is whether the story can be retold better than the original? I wasn’t expecting this when I started my rewatch. Will Joe and the studio allow more writers to be involved and more up-to-date world views (particularly around gender) to have traction? Is the CW really the best home for a show that is this adult? Frankly, I would have looked at streamer like Amazon, HBO Max, or Netflix where the grittier aspects would have been welcome, and where people could have jumped in at any time and started from the beginning. And I’d have pitched it more as an update and rethink than a reboot. But, regardless, I’ll certainly be there to find out if it can fly. If nothing else, perhaps we’ll finally get an HD version of this story since some idiot at Fox deleted all the digital originals to save disk space (no, I’m not kidding).

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Striking a Sinful Pose

[4 stars]

I’ve held off writing up Pose for a lot of reasons. And held off posting this discussion for even more. But now that it has wrapped, and my brain was whirring on the shape of it all, I found my fingers unable to avoid it. And I know I’m going to get some grief for doing so. That’s OK, I can own it.

There are few writers looking at the LGTBQ+ community with the love and honesty that Ryan Murphy (The Prom) does. Only Russell T. Davies (It’s a Sin) comes to mind in terms of other writers of similar impact and power. But while It’s a Sin and Pose came out about the same time they are very different contexts and very different shapes, though ultimately both celebrations of love, life, and the community they inhabit.

It’s a Sin compresses the start and turn-to-hope of the AIDS crisis into a single, limited series that is devastating and joyful at the same time. I’ve written it up separately and will try not to repeat that here other than in comparisons.

Pose, on the other hand, targets roughly the same period over three seasons, a different decade in each, in a more, shall we say, Dramatic way. I don’t mean the flamboyant wonderfulness of the women in the show, I mean the story structure. The melodramatic sensibility mirrors the personalities, but it is also intentionally huge and just a tad soapy.

In some ways I not only respect that choice, but love it. It was certainly entertaining and, more importantly, there was never a doubt or hesitation to recognizing the women in the story. For those not aware of the Ball culture or without a lot of contact with (or with misconceptions about) the trans community, it was also an education as well as an entertainment. It took the joy and the horror of the controversial Paris is Burning and brought it to fictional life in unforgettable and sympathetic ways.

But I also found the story approach putting distance between me and the characters; especially in the final season. And that was a bit unexpected as I remember those years. I was there for some of those events, but certainly knew many who were when I wasn’t. And that frustrated me as a viewer. Not that I didn’t cry… I most certainly lost it often through the show (and through It’s a Sin too) even as I’d also be belly laughing at other times.

And while I was not at the Balls, neither was I part of club culture in England (or NYC for that matter) during those eras. But I knew (and lost) people from all those walks of life. In fact, I just recently lost another friend who had survived on the cocktail for decades. I suspect the pandemic as the precipitating cause, but I may never know. Like so many friends living at a several state remove, he vanished until word trickled back to me via the grapevine.

My point is that neither of these worlds or stories or people or lifestyles are utterly alien to me, though I have to admit that I’m more connected to It’s a Sin than Pose in a direct sense.

Perhaps what it comes down to is that Pose is a wonderful story while It’s a Sin is more a wonderful statement. Both are some of the best and most complete views of the communities they depict. But my aversion to the melodramatic definitely made Pose a challenge at times. But both are important milestones in media and emotional stories that will wring you out even while you cheer and laugh.

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My Octopus Teacher

[4 stars]

I am so late to this one, I’m embarrassed. It was in my queue for ages, but got lost. If you still haven’t seen this beautifully filmed tale of a man lost, found, and freed…all thanks to his obsession with an octopus, then make the time. You will not be sorry.

Now up for an Oscar, I must admit that this docu is one of the odder I may have ever seen. Not because of the subject, but because the intended focus is utterly orthogonal to the central subject. It certainly films the year-long life of young octopus and its, for lack of a better word, friendship with nature writer and filmmaker Craig Foster. But the story is more about Foster and his self-professed reawakening from the experience.

Foster’s is battling a personal crisis and isolation at the beginning¬† of the story. It’s that journey, through the experience of meeting the octopus and joining it daily in its world, about which the story flows. Though how much he learns or took away from the experience is something I am still discussing today with others who’ve seen the film.

It is telling that Foster didn’t direct and write this documentary, but allowed fellow artists Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed to tell the story, though they never appear on screen.¬†Without that distance, there would have been a lack of honesty in the final result.

Frankly, the film just has to be experienced…and experienced on your own terms to interpret. I’ve spent days thinking about it afterwards, struggling to write it up and realized that there was no definitive way to do so. It is a must-see film. What you take from it is going to be based on your own experience and state of mind. Certainly, pandemic viewing has impacted that filter.

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The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[4.5 stars]

I hardly know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ (The Butler) latest. The politics? The art? The tragedy? The dark mirror on the present? Perhaps it’s best to just try to do each bit separately…

The voice. There are a handful of singers whose voices are unique signatures, not just because of their sound (there are plenty of them) but because of the emotion they impart with every breath. Billie Holliday is one of those few. Holliday is singular and recognizable and, with every note, grabs you by the throat. Andra Day captures all of that in her beautiful performance and with her expert voice that has you initially wondering if she was lip syncing the original tracks. She isn’t.

The song. You never forget the first time you hear Strange Fruit. It is haunting, horrible, accusatory, righteous, defiant. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks sets it up to perfection in her adaptation, and Daniels knocks it over the fences in the film.

The honesty. Holliday was a flawed person. Damaged and self-destructive, but not paranoid: they were out to get her. She had a string of damaging and intense relationships, including Trevante Rhodes’s (Bird Box) federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Natasha Lyonne’s (Russian Doll) Tallulah Bankhead. She was also an addict and fiercely independent in ways that damaged others. All of this is on display without judgment and without apology. By keeping the story relatively honest, it’s even more impactful.

The politics. Need a reminder of where we’ve come from and how little has really changed? Here it is…again. While it focuses on one face as the force behind the reign of horror on Holliday in Garrett Hedlund’s (Mudbound) Harry Anslinger, Hoover hovers behind it all as he did over the country for decades. Along with Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma, BlacKkKlansman, and so many other recent films, this story adds to the dark map of race relations in this country.

But you have to ultimately come to the most important question: is it a good movie? It is unequivocally an important one. It is somewhat flawed in a general sense. While it is uses clever visuals to take us back in time, it also has some odd POV choices that aren’t always effective. Anslinger is played just a little too oily–which, even if accurate, makes it harder to accept the truth of the tale. And Rhode’s is, amusingly, just a bit too ripped for his role. It may be pleasant to see, but it is out of character and period. And, frankly, Holliday’s sexuality isn’t fully balanced in its presentation and exploration.

But, overall, it is very, very effective and leaves you breathless. And if you needed any indication of Daniels’ own conflicted feelings of the story and the truth, watch through the first half of the credits for a sweet coda.

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The Father

[4.5 stars]

Let’s talk about POV. Like the recent Bliss, Florian Zeller’s freshman outing relies heavily on character point of view and editing to provide the necessary information for navigating the story. By watching very carefully, you can tease apart most of the truth. Most of it. Unlike Bliss, Zeller’s adaptation of his play, with help from Christopher Hampton (Adore), the truth can still elude you; but that’s ok. Unlike previous stories, like Still Alice, the film tries to recreate what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s from the inside rather than primarily from outside. How they go about that is something you just need to experience, but to say you’ve got unreliable narrator is an understatement. But the threads are (mostly) there for the watcher to stay relatively grounded. Honestly, I’m still discussing it with people trying to pull it all apart.

Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a wonderfully mercurial performance as his character is buffeted by his confusion and frustration. But while he is the primary POV, his daughter provides a second, which is another way Zeller helps you along. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) delivers a heart-wrenching performance as she navigates her father’s illness, giving us glimpses into the emotional and physical realities and a small touch of what must have been their past.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable and storied. Olivia Williams (Maps to the Stars), Mark Gatiss (Locked Down), Rufus Sewell (The Pale Horse), and Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) perform a wonderfully seamless dance filling out the story.

This is also a movie where the production designer Peter Francis (Rocketman) and editor Yorgos Lamprinos have had huge impact on the story-telling and need to be called out. Pay attention to the details in the sets and how the sequences are put together. Truly amazing work all around.

My only issue with the film comes near the end where it felt a little forced and rushed. It isn’t necessarily an untrue depiction, but my gut is that the events could have remained while the dialogue could have been a little more finessed. That minor criticism aside, The Father has already garnered a lot of nominations and wins, with more sure to come. This is one movie who’s odd ride is worth every moment you spend with it, and it’s a wonderful class in perspective and humility.

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Mid Winter(ish) TV

I’ve not written up some of the new and returning shows over the last few months, so dropping them together in a bunch here. More will be coming in the next few weeks, but this was getting long enough already…

Call Me Kat
This odd offering by Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) is a unique and not entirely comfortable show. It may eventually find it’s feet, but it’s best to think of it as a sketch show or comedy half-hour rather than a story so far. And the abuse of the great Swoosie Kurtz is near criminal. By way of context, this show is based on the UK’s Miranda, adopting the quasi-stand-up nature of the original but trying to push it more toward ensemble…. BTW, if you haven’t caught Miranda, it’s a fascinating to compare the two and it boasts Tom Ellis (Lucifer) in the wish-he-were-my-boyfriend role.

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Mr. Mayor
If you loved The Office, this is probably a show for you. I didn’t and it isn’t for me. It’s just too broad and full of, well, stupid people who aren’t supposed to be stupid or, worse, couldn’t be that stupid and be where they are in life. Given the talent involved in this show, it’s a real shame.

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Call Your Mother
This is a show on the bubble. Kyra Sedgwick (Ten Days in the Valley) manages to walk the line between very broad humor and honest emotion. Whether the writing can keep up with that challenge and create storylines we care about long term…the jury’s still way out on that one, but I’ll give it some more time.

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B Positive
Oh, god, just no. Awful, unbelievable, absurd, insulting, frustrating, and painful.

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The Expanse (series 5)
Twenty years ago, the end of the first season of Farscape was termed “the multipart cliffhanger from hell” by its creator. And it was…and it took a good part of the next season to resolve and cover what happened. The current season of The Expanse reminds me a lot of that structure. After bringing things to a huge climactic pause at the end of the previous season, the various characters are scattered across the solar system pursuing various storylines that will, by necessity, be intertwined and eventually bring them back together. As the show preps for its final season, this is level-setting and putting all the pieces in place for the final confrontations to come. A good season with revelations and some resolutions, especially for Dominique Tipper’s (Mindgamers) Naomi and Wes Chatham’s (Escape Plan 2) Amos, but mostly it serves as set-up for the end.

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Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (series 2)
After its heart-rending and brilliant opening season, I was worried the magic wouldn’t last. It has. And the show, at least so far, continues to build on its characters and conceit. If you’ve yet to try this one out, you absolutely must…and start at the beginning. Yes, it gets heavy, but it builds to one of the most beautiful finales you’ll ever see. And it never loses its sense of humor or love of its characters.

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Promising Young Woman

[4.5 stars]

Some movies just sucker punch you because you’ve no idea what to expect. In terms of quality, this one’s right up there with Soul, Trial of the Chicago 7, and Palm Springs…among the best this season.

Even more impressive is that this is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s (Killing Eve) first feature; she’s better known for her acting chops. But Promising Young Woman makes an impressive application of all she’s learned over the years in front of the camera.

And then there is the woman at the center of the on-screen story, Carrie Mulligan (Collateral).¬† She flattens you with her powerful performance and shoulders the film on screen with her charisma, intelligence, and sense of humor. From the moment she appears you can’t take your eyes off of her. And once you understand her, you can’t help but cheer her on and not turn away.

There are some nice supporting roles by Lavern Cox (Orange is the New Black), Clancy Brown, Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade), and Alison Brie (Happiest Season). But this story is utterly through Mulligan’s eyes and perspective by necessity, and she carries it off.

The movie does have its weak moments, but they’re few. One aspect is around some of the soundtrack, which goes just a bit overboard at times, not trusting the actors and situation to make the point. The other is around some transitional moments that are less than smooth. But in the face of the rest of the film, I forgive them all.

Promising Young Woman grabs you by the soft bits and drags you through to the end. And it manages to remain triumphant despite the subject and the situations. It is sure to generate controversy and contemplation for the actions and probably even leave a few in the dust as to the title. But that’s all part of the point. Make time for this one, both for the central performance and the story itself. Despite the weird festival season, it’s been making itself heard, and I expect that to continue through the majors over the next few months.

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Soul

[4.5 stars]

Just wow. Not only is this a beautifully drawn and designed film, it’s a clever and engaging animated tale that will entertain young and old alike. In fact, the only reason I couldn’t give this a straight-up 5 stars was because of some of the minor bits that were there for laughs alone for the youngsters and small flaws that made no real-world sense. Otherwise, this is an instant classic and will bear up under rewatching for years to come.

The vocal duelling between Jamie Foxx (Project Power) and Tina Fey (Admission) is wonderfully entertaining and amusingly animated (literally and figuratively). Add the dry fun of Richard Ayoade (The Boxtrolls), Alice Braga (Kill Me Three Times), and Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) and you’ve an incredible pallet of humor to bounce off of. A host of smaller roles are given life by talented names as well. And then there’s the jazz arrangements and playing under the guidance of Jon Batiste.

Peter Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) co-directed and, with an assist by Mike Jones, co-wrote the script. It is a masterful piece of wry wit and honest reflection on life. There’s no point in describing more of it because you should just experience it, whether now or later. It’s a pity this one didn’t see the large screen, but it certainly entertains like it should and doesn’t disappoint.

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Kiss the Ground

[4 stars]

You probably think you know all about carbon sequestration and climate change. And, since you think you do (like me), you likely had also just about given up hope. Even Wood Harrelson (Zombieland: Double Tap) admits as much in his opening comments to this fascinating documentary.

We’re wrong. The next 90 minutes walk you through not only what we can do, but how easy it could be with just a few changes. I actually ended this documentary with a sense of hope, which I haven’t done after a climate change docu in years. Kiss the Ground simply lays out the path and advantages (yes, you can make more money this way) of rebuilding our soil. Sure it goes through how we got where we are; that’s necessary to understand where the resistance is coming from. It also suggests individual choice changes you can make to help the process along.

Make time for this. Be re-energized about the future in a way you probably haven’t in ages. Then make a few changes and push your local and federal leaders to do so as well.

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What the Constitution Means to Me

[3.5 stars]

Heidi Schreck isn’t widely know in film and TV, but her semi-autobiographical play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is topical, educational, and funny amid the points. And there is likely an awful lot of information your social studies/government studies, or whatever passes for those classes these days, left out.

While we sit around waiting for the results of the 2020 election, and shortly after we’ve had yet another “originalist” sat on SCOTUS, this play couldn’t be more timely or appropriate. It isn’t perfect…the structure is a bit odd, the moments don’t always flow perfectly from one thought to another, and capturing the play for film wasn’t done particularly well, though it certainly works. But the overall points and the raw emotion that Schreck can dredge up are worth any moments of weakness. And, given where we are as a country right now, this is a must see 100 minutes for everyone (though, be aware it does contain some adult subject matter and language).

So, while we wait to see what direction we may end up pointing, take a break and gain some additional perspective for what’s to come and what could come.

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